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Village left in shock at Gillingham helicopter tragedy

PUBLISHED: 11:25 15 March 2014 | UPDATED: 19:12 15 March 2014

Helicopter crash scene, Gillingham, Norfolk.

Helicopter crash scene, Gillingham, Norfolk.

©Archant 2014

People living close to the Norfolk helicopter crash spoke of their conflicting emotions of horror at the tragedy and relief that the consequences were not far worse.

Concern over helicopter

The helicopter involved in the crash was an AgustaWestland AW139, a 15-seat medium- sized twin-engined helicopter manufactured by Italian company AgustaWestland – and one of the men who died had previously lodged a claim against its makers.

Lord Ballyedmond had recently raised concerns with the aircraft’s manufacturers.

His company Haughey Air Ltd had lodged a writ against AgustaWestland over concerns about a helicopter supplied by them.

The case was lodged in September last year and is understood to have included concerns about in-flight mapping systems.

A spokesman for AgustaWestland said it could not comment on possible defects with Lord Ballyedmond’s AW139 VIP helicopter but said it was investigating.

Speaking from the company’s office in Italy, he said: “We cannot yet comment on this accident because there is an investigation pending and there could be many causes, be they technical or due to human error. Obviously we are very much regretful of what happened and will support the ongoing investigation in any possible way.”

In February 2012 an inquest heard in-flight technology systems on board AgustaWestland helicopters should be improved after a crash which killed a friend of the Prince of Wales.

The AW139 is used by both private individuals and companies and helicopter charter, including offshore support. It is also used by law enforcement and government agencies.

Four people were killed when a helicopter plunged into a field in heavy fog off the A143 Yarmouth Road in Gillingham, near Beccles.

However, as the fog lifted yesterday afternoon it became clear that the crash was close to a busy fast-food restaurant, petrol station and family homes.

The AgustaWestland AW139 was taking off from Gillingham Hall, the home of Lord Ballyedmond - Edward Haughey - one of the passengers, at around 7.30pm on Thursday.

It came down moments later less than 100 yards from McDonald’s and the BP Garage on the Gillingham roundabout.

Hazards faced by helicopters

Flying into deteriorating weather conditions, such as those possibly faced in the accident, is one of the biggest risks in helicopter flights, according to aviation safety experts.

David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight Global, said: “There have been many incidents when pilots have continued their journey instead of turning back before the conditions worsened. What then happens is that the flight continues and the weather gets even worse. Flying into deteriorating weather is one of the biggest risks for helicopter flights, as statistics show.”

What will emerge from the investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) team will be the type of flying qualification held by the pilot. Many helicopter pilots are permitted to fly only in good visibility conditions during the day, with others permitted to fly at night in good conditions. Some pilots are qualified to fly using visual aid instruments so they are able to take to the skies when there is cloud, or poor visibility. When “flying on instruments”, pilots are provided with an artificial horizon so they can keep their aircraft level. They can also use compass readings.

Mr Learmount said: “Helicopters are much more difficult to fly than aeroplanes and much more difficult to fly on instruments than planes. You have to be particularly careful if fog is around. It’s a hell of a hazard.”

The AAIB will also want to know if there was any communication from the helicopter before or during the flight. If the helicopter had taken off from a private helipad in good conditions, the pilot would not have needed any permission to get airborne.

Mother-of-three Diane Smith, who lives with her family at Forge Grove, a housing estate a stones throw away from the crash site, said she was stunned and saddened by the deaths, but said it was a miracle that no-one else was killed.

She said: “It is such a tragic accident and awful to hear about it happening so close to your home. We are a small village, but there are a lot of families who live here and it doesn’t bear to think what would have happened if it had crashed elsewhere.”

• Update: United States government reacts to death of Lord Ballyedmond in Gillingham helicopter crash

History of Gillingham Hall

Gillingham Hall is a Grade II-listed country house dating from circa 1600 with early 18th-century and early 19th- century additions.

The hall, which boasts 55-acres of land and stands off Church Road in Gillingham, was valued at £2.25m when it was put up for sale in 2005, and is also covered by conservation area regulations.

Queen Elizabeth I gave the manor to Sir Nicholas Bacon, Keeper of the Great Seal. The hall was built by his son Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor, in 1612, and stayed in the family until it was sold in 2000.

The hall is now owned by Gillingham Trust, and The Honourable Edward Haughey, eldest son of Lord Ballyedmond, is the beneficiary.

A planning application was submitted in 2008 to upgrade the living facilities and staff quarters at the 10-bedroom hall. The application included remodelling work on the first floor to give each bedroom its own ensuite, and an extension and improvements to kitchen and laundry facilities for staff, as well as developing a two-bedroom butler’s flat. The application was approved with conditions.

• Tributes paid to pilot and co-pilot of Gillingham helicopter crash

• Video: First footage of Norfolk helicopter crash site in which four men, including Lord Ballyedmond, were killed

The other victims have been named as Declan Small, 42, a site foreman for Lord Ballyedmond’s company Norbrook Pharmaceuticals, based in Newry, Northern Ireland, Captain Carl Dickerson and Captain Lee Hoyle, both pilots.

Detectives with specialist skills from the Norfolk and Suffolk Major Investigation Team last night said that they were satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the incident.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) yesterday took over as the lead investigators of the scene and will continue with their detailed inquiries into the cause of the crash this weekend.

James Avery, 35, from Hopton, was first on the scene and ran into McDonalds telling staff to call the emergency services.

He said: “I was outside having a cup of tea when I heard it take off across the road. It hovered and then flew across the road from the right to the left. After about 30 seconds I heard a loud bang and straight after the sounds of a turbine engine winding down.

“Me and my friend ran across the road to where we thought it went down but because of the heavy fog we couldn’t see anything at all.

“Further up the road we saw some strobe lights which we believe were the landing pads but as we walked away they went off and the noise suddenly stopped.”

Police cordoned off around 150-200 square metres of land, including ploughed fields, along with part of the A146, A143 and Raveningham Road, which surround the area where the helicopter landed.

The bodies were removed from the helicopter at about 2pm yesterday. The helicopter will not be moved until a forensic investigation has taken place.

Chief Inspector Stuart Armes from Norfolk Police was unable to confirm that passengers put out a distress call or whether the foggy weather conditions played a part in the accident.

He said extra manpower had been called in from other counties and that officers were working to reopen the roads as soon as possible, which were closed due to concerns over scattered debris.

He said: “I imagine people are watching the news and are concerned about what is happening. This is a very, very rare incident and is something that we have to do our best to deal with.”

Jimmy Tuttle, 40, was working at his wood yard on the old Yarmouth Road in Gillingham around 7.15pm when he saw the helicopter come into sight above him.

“I heard the helicopter above me and then it came into sight at a really funny angle. I thought it was rather odd as it was pitching at about 45 degrees. The engine sounded like it was struggling, it didn’t seem right. I followed it across the fields and then it went out of sight, I assumed it had landed.

“I’ve seen the helicopter several times as it is often seen buzzing around. I knew straight away which helicopter it was.”

Lorraine Greenwood, 49, lives about 100 yards away from Gillingham Hall, and was at home at the time of the crash.

She said: “I saw a lot of police activity coming from Beccles and going back again and then I saw them at the side of the hall entrance. I could hear two helicopters flying around too but I couldn’t see anything because it was too foggy.

“My first thought was that there had been a break-in at the hall and I was worried because I live so close. It is very sad for everyone on the helicopter. I feel lucky because it crashed so close to my house and it could have been a lot worse.”

Miss Greenwood said Lord Ballyedmond flied in every Thursday.

She said: “The helicopter flies right over my garden fence. I’ve never seen him flying anything other than a blue and white helicopter. He keeps himself to himself and because he flies in we never really see him.”

Family liaison officers are providing support to relatives of the dead men.

Did you witness the crash? Do you want to pay tribute to any of the victims? Contact Kathryn Bradley on 01502 525832 or email

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